With a parade of members of the security forces on Zahir Pajaziti Square and a speech by the president, Kosovo will mark 15 years of independence with signs of optimism that Europe’s newest independent country could in the foreseeable future normalize its relations with Serbia, from which it seceded after the 1999 war.
The years marked by Priština’s struggle to join the United Nations, and Serbia’s blockades, distanced both countries from their European prospects and made it impossible for them to focus on development and solving the problems of daily life of citizens.
In 2016, Kosovo signed the Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU, which was the most important benchmark on its European path. Two years later, while the European Commission put Kosovo and five other countries of the Western Balkans on the list of enlargements, the prospects of membership seem very dim.
THE EXODUS YEARS
Independence brought freedom, but also an array of problems. There are no more refugee columns, which caused NATO to engage in a humanitarian intervention in 1999, but there are new columns of those who want to leave the country and seek happiness in Western Europe.
Kosovo is the youngest country in Europe: as many as 70 percent of the population are under the age of 35, representing untapped economic potential; unemployment is 44 percent, wages are low, education is such that it does not prepare young people for the job market, healthcare is inefficient. Due to all this the percentage of young Albanians who aspire to leave the country one of the highest in the region.
The number of inhabitants fell from 2.1 million in 2001 to 1.7 million. Nexhmedin Spahiu, a professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Priština, believes that as many as 500,000 people could leave Kosovo.
Celebrated wartime commanders ended up on trial in The Hague after leaving behind a country rife with corruption. The new leaders, Prime Minister Albin Kurti and President Vjosa Osmani, have before them the titanic task of fighting the culture of myth. They have just started.
All those years, Kosovo slid into criminality, a process which, in some paradoxical and twisted form, showed to what extent coexistence of Albanians, who make up the overwhelming majority of 95.6 percent of the population, and Serbs is possible: mobsters’ mutual cooperation knows no borders.
The once unstoppable optimism is turning into disappointment. Today, Kosovo is yet another unfinished state of the region, whose democracy is in puberty and whose institutions are weak. It is still the most underdeveloped part of the Western Balkans, just as it was in the former Yugoslavia.
PESSIMISM AND HOPE
Against this stands the untapped energy of unrelenting romantic enthusiasm for independence. While there is disappointment in the political and economic situation, flashes of optimism are coming from other sides. There is a strong potential of the civil sector to help speed up democratization. Kosovo is flourishing in the artistic, cultural and sports field.
Artists originating from Kosovo Rita Ora, Dua Lipa or Era Istrefi have become international music stars. In 2017, young artist Petrit Halilaj received a special award at the Venice Biennale. Two female judokas from Kosovo won gold medals at the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo.
What will be the result of the race between these two opposing moods depends to a large extent on the willingness of the authorities in Priština to focus more effectively on solving internal problems, on that of Kosovo and Serbia to embark on the path of normalization, and on the West, which must not allow Kosovo’s Euro-Atlantic ambitions to fade away as it is happening throughout the region.
THE HEAVY SHADOW OF SERBIA
Since the declaration of independence, Kosovo has been recognized by some 110 countries. It has become a member of various international organizations – from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to the International Olympic Committee and the World Football Federation FIFA – but not the United Nations, the European Union and NATO. Five EU members – Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Slovakia and Spain – still do not recognize Kosovo as a state.
Belgrade has been blocking membership not only in the UN, but also in UNESCO or Interpol. All this is a confirmation that Kosovo spent all the years of independence under the heavy shadow of the conflict with Serbia.
Dangerous tensions like those in March 2004, when 11 Albanians and eight Serbs died in an armed conflict, have been replaced by incidents that were not deadly but carried explosive potential. The crisis further intensified when, in December 2018, the Kosovo Security Forces were transformed into an army.
There were conflicts over license plates or tensions at the end of 2022 caused by the withdrawal of Serbs from Priština institutions due to the arrest of a Serb member of the Kosovo police.
Đakovica was rebuilt from the ruins, but there are still many physical scars from the times 15 years ago. Undiscovered graves still hide those who are registered as “missing persons” in cold bureaucratic terms. Mitrovica is still a divided town where there is a lot of fear on both banks of the Ibar River.
Not enjoying full recognition in the UN has its economic price. Half-defined status deters foreign investors. If independence were universally recognized, the number of exporters and importers would increase significantly. As a rule, diplomatic problems threaten trade. It was the same in 2020, when Kosovo imposed one hundred percent taxes on products from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The damage done to everyone showed what it means to not have normal relations.
For years there was no postal service and everything travelled through Albania, but since the country code was obtained, the transfer of money has become easier. Until recently, Kosovo was the only European country not enjoying a visa liberalization regime, until the EU ultimately remedied such a situation.
All these years, the opportunity for Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo and Serbia to get to know each other better was missed. They ignore that they share almost the same problems that should bring them closer and not drive them further apart, while they listen to their political leaders every day, who have built their own careers by exchanging vitriolic accusations. The media bear a great responsibility, because they haven’t even bothered to describe the reality haven’t refrained from rhetoric that spreads hatred.
COLD WAR PORTAL
The Kosovo conflict left the regional framework long ago, turning into one of the peripheral, but no less dangerous fronts of the geostrategic conflict between East and West. In the years before the declaration of independence in 2008, a creeping Cold War emerged that would later explode in Ukraine.
The crisis over Kosovo opened the gates to Russia’s entry into the Western Balkans. Never before has the Kremlin exerted such a strong influence on Serbia, which has spilled over to Republika Srpska, with the ambition of expanding to Montenegro and North Macedonia. The beginning of Russia’s serious push for the destabilization of the region is directly tied to the Kosovo conflict.
Moscow presented itself as the protector of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Serbia. The mere possibility of vetoing Kosovo’s independence in the UN Security Council was enough for Belgrade to be willing to make a series of political and economic concessions. There is an open space for Russia to maximize its soft power and launch propaganda activities that have eventually distanced Serbia from the EU and the USA and brought it closer to Moscow. Serbs in Kosovska Mitrovica had never before painted Vladimir Putin’s image on the walls.
Kosovo is a constant point of reference for Russian officials. The Kremlin persistently presents the NATO intervention in 1999 as the original sin of the West and a humiliating bombing campaign that Russia must avenge. Or to try to use Kosovo to legalize its conquests and annexations across Ukraine, from Crimea to the four regions of the Donbass. To put its imperial aggression on equal footing as humanitarian intervention and send a message: if the West could change the borders of Yugoslavia, Russia can also change the borders of Ukraine. Many in Serbia, after decades of propaganda, believe that. The state of frozen conflict suits Russia.
A HISTORIC CHANCE
In 2011, the European Union, acting as a mediator, initiated a dialogue that led to the first agreement two years later in Brussels: Priština was vested with the powers of the judiciary and the police over the entire territory and undertook the obligation to form the Union of Serbian Municipalities (USM) in the north. The resolution of “technical issues” started: recognition of diplomas, area code for Kosovo, license plates, control of electricity distribution…
Too little, too slow. The war in Ukraine has dramatically strained the relations between the East and the West, to the extent that Brussels and Washington are determined to remove the Kosovo issue from the agenda so that it does not turn into a security problem.
The war became a catalyst for an accelerated search for a solution. The West has synchronized its positions and, as its patience is running out, it is in a hurry to relegate the biggest problem of the Western Balkans to the archives of history after a decade of negotiations with poor results.
First, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz presented a plan that was soon accepted by the EU as a new negotiating framework, and the USA clearly and unequivocally supported it. Special envoys and mediators in the dialogue relied on shuttle diplomacy cruising between Belgrade and Priština.
The details of the new negotiation framework are not known, but its key premises are: the main prize for Kosovo would be membership in the United Nations, although the Government in Priština makes the acceptance of the European plan conditional on receiving recognition from the five non-recognizing EU member states, and that Serbia and Kosovo sign an agreement on mutual recognition.
Serbia would not be obliged to recognize Kosovo, but it would have to agree to Kosovo’s membership “in all international organizations”, and the USM would definitely be formed – in accordance with the Kosovo Constitution.
At the same time, the consequences of refusing the plan were clearly indicated to both Serbia and Kosovo. Belgrade would have to forget about European integration and investments from the West – which are the basis of Serbia’s development – would be interrupted and existing investors encouraged to withdraw. Visas could also be imposed. Priština’s already open path to membership in the Council of Europe would be closed, and EU integration would be frozen.
President Aleksandar Vučić admits that he is under “heavy” pressure, but he agreed with the European concept. By doing so he angered not only the “patriotic” opposition of the neo-nationalist right, but also his pro-European rivals who accuse him of “treason, surrender and sell-off” of Kosovo. This is a strong testimony of how many politicians and citizens are willing to support an illusion, because Serbia cannot “betray, surrender and sell-off” Kosovo after losing it in the 1999 war.
Whether Serbia will be ready to sacrifice the prospect of peace and EU membership to prevent Kosovo from getting a seat in the UN remains to be seen. President Vučić is an enigmatic personality. There are fewer optimists than pessimists.
Prime Minister Albin Kurti also accepted the European plan as a good basis for a new dialogue, but he is still very reserved about the formation of USM and presented a list of his six absurd conditions, thus directly endangering his own political future as his biggest ally, the United States, says that USM will be established “with or without Kurti”.
The time has come for a historic opportunity. Belgrade and Priština will hardly get a better offer.
Boško Jakšić spent his professional career in “Politika”. He traveled more than halfway around the world, reported from wars, large international gatherings and interviewed many statesmen. He was the standing correspondent from Cairo and Rome, and he spent a year in Washington as a scholarship holder of the Washington Post. For the last two and a half decades, in addition to foreign affairs, he has been actively involved in domestic politics as well. Today, he writes columns on regular basis in “Politika”, Sarajevo’s “Oslobođenje” and Skopje’s “Sloboden pećat”.
Translated by Bogdan Petrović